Once a week, on Friday mornings, all of us boys at the Catholic primary school would troop down from our first-floor classrooms, one class at a time, line up two by two in the yard, and march through the gates to the parish church across the road. To anyone looking down from above, say from the church tower, or heaven, we must’ve looked like disciplined little lemmings in our grey, standard-issue dust coats. The only ones not allowed to participate in this weekly ritual were the first graders, age six going on seven, who occupied the school’s ground floor classrooms, and invariably ogled our grey parade from behind the windowpanes. They, you see, had not yet reached the “age of reason” and would have to await that fateful Friday in May when they would go to confession for the very first time, and consequently celebrate their First Communion the following Sunday.
First Communion was a momentous event in our young lives. You’d finally receive the Eucharist and find out what the “Body of Christ” really tasted like; you’d get to dress up in a brand new suit, though you’d have to badger your mother to get the one with the long pants and not the shorts; you’d be the centre of attention for a day, there would be presents, and at the end of the family meal, with all your grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins in attendance, there would be cake, the biggest you’d ever seen!
However, what nobody really, clearly, told you, is that from now on you’d also have to go through life bearing the heavy weight of sin and guilt.
Quite a price to pay for a wafer, a celebration, a handful of presents and a piece of cake.
Now, you had two options: live like a saint, or go to confession.
None of us were saints, so confession it was, and on your way to church you were bound to pass the boys from the previous class, scurrying back, elated, whispering and giggling, all their sins of the past week forgiven and their show of remorse short-lived. Going in, however, was a much more subdued affair, contemplative even, though hardly because we felt riddled with unsurmountable guilt. Mind you, we did have “sin” on our minds (though none mortal), but that was only because we were trying to remember what we’d confessed the previous week and now needed to come up with some other mischief convincing enough to earn a few Hail Marys but be spared the lengthier and more damning Our Fathers.
In our catalogue of confessable sins there were such as stealing from the cookie jar, and then, when your mother found out, blaming one of your siblings – preferably a sister if you had one – only to end up quarrelling with aforementioned sibling when he or she cried foul. But confession being a weekly endeavour, you could proffer this particular sequence of sins only so many times a year. So, if anything, confession truly stimulated our creativity paired with an acute sense of brevity. You didn’t want to be inside the confessional any longer than necessary.
But with two older brothers and a younger sister, I was never short of variations on a proven theme, and I pitied the boys who had no siblings.
Surprisingly enough, the priest, who must’ve been well aware of the poetic liberties most of us took when reciting our youthful sins, never challenged our little fabrications. He always listened, or at least pretended to, told us not to do it again, then meted out the Hail Marys and Our Fathers and sent us on our way. Next, please – “Bless me Father, for I have sinned, …” – over and over again. Granted, taking confession from six different grades in a single morning would, I suppose, numb even the most zealous of priests.
But light-hearted and humdrum as all of the above may seem, you don’t need to be a certified therapist to get a sense of the formidable psychology that underpinned this weekly ritual. In the end, there was no need for the priest to challenge our stories. The ritual in itself had served its purpose – we conformed, participated, and entrusted the priest with the power to absolve in the name of God. We didn’t question. We had reached the age of reason.